This is the official website of writer Victoria Janssen, author of A Place of Refuge, three science fiction hopepunk novellas following three former guerillas who’ve escaped to a utopian planet after losing their fight against a fascist empire. They’re figuring out how to live a life that’s not focused on the constant fear of death, with the aid of pastries, therapy, and other people.
This year, I’ll again be participating in the TBR Challenge hosted by Wendy the Super Librarian. My goal is to post reviews of a themed book on the third Wednesday of every month. Feel free to join me! Tag your social media posts with #TBRChallenge. The monthly themes, and my choices to fit those themes, are listed below. All of the books are from my To Be Read shelves (physical and virtual) as of December, 2022. I’ve tried to stick to the suggested themes, even though it’s not required.
A Paradigm of Earth by Candas Jane Dorsey is a 2001 book which begins with several traumatic events told in a lowkey voice of depression. Morgan Shelby works with children who have severely disfiguring birth defects. Despite the first sentence of the novel referring to “living gargoyles,” she is compassionate and empathetic to the child Asam, who’s about to undergo massive surgery, which we soon learn he does not survive. Morgan’s partner leaves her, and Morgan has to leave the home they made together. Her father dies after a long illness. Her mother dies in an accident; her grief is a possible contributor. All of this occurs in the first chapter, so it’s not a surprise that Morgan decides to go and live in the enormous house left to her in her mother’s will, a house that until recently had been occupied by a religious order.
Morgan can see that she is not human. It is clear. She has kept the external shell, but everything has been scraped out, there is a void there, an alien void, outer space made internal, and she wonders whether she will ever have the courage, or energy, to explore it.
The book is set in Western Canada in the near future. Morgan spends her inheritance making the house livable, and then takes several boarders, including her Delany, her close friend from college, an artist who has a genetic disorder and uses a wheelchair. Soon others move in, but then the plot shifts when aliens come to Earth, deliver a message, and then leave their bodies behind to be brought up as humans and then recovered by their alien compatriots. Needing a job and answering an advertisement for adult childcare, Morgan unexpectedly ends up working with the alien who’s being held in Canada, whom she calls Blue. Morgan begins to educate Blue, who swiftly advances in vocabulary and behavior, but the plot shifts more than once from a sort of First Contact science fiction to include aspects of suspense, romance, murder mystery, and literary fiction.
A Paradigm of Earth is, in my opinion, a much more complex and more experimental novel than Dorsey’s first, Black Wine. It’s difficult to sum up, so I won’t try, but I’m glad I finally pulled it off the TBR shelf!
Fiction: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson is a charming romance with older characters set in a contemporary small English village. Major Ernest Pettigrew, a widower of six years, has just been told his brother unexpectedly died, when he re-encounters the owner of their local grocery shop, Mrs. Jasmina Ali. Jasmina is a widow as well, and they make a swift and unexpected emotional connection. Their romance is mingled with family issues stemming from the major’s brother’s will and Jasmina’s in-laws. They’re also both dealing with changes, both pleasant and difficult, that come from entering a new stage of life; they’re learning what they want to keep, and what they want to let go.
You Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo is space opera about a group of former soldiers trying to make a new life for themselves with a restaurant on the edge of known space; but their life is interrupted by a vengeful pirate from their captain’s past, and possibly shaped by the forces of destiny. From the description of this book, which mentioned “The Great British Bakeoff,” I’d expected a lot more lighthearted hijinks than it actually contained. I enjoyed it, but a massive disaster and a harrowing death about halfway through took me by surprise. The worldbuilding is excellent, featuring all sorts of aliens including a plant being and a squid-like being with symbiotic elements. I could see this story being made into television very easily.
Fanfiction: The One Where They’re Stars on HGTV by earlgreytea68 is an absolutely massive alternate universe romance series focusing on Arthur and Eames from the movie Inception. You do not need to have seen the movie to read the series, though there are amusing references to the movie here and there. The setup is simple. Arthur is a real estate agent; Eames is an interior designer. They star in a television show called “Love It or Leave It” in which they compete to offer couples either a new house or a fabulous renovation of their current house. Eames and Arthur become romantically involved. Third in the series is “Next Big Thing,” in which they take a job as judges on a reality show for aspiring designers; a late replacement for the third judge turns out to be an ex-lover of Eames, another design show host named Alec Hart, who’s determined to further his career by any means necessary. Despite the conflicts driven by Hart, the story is fairly low-key as the relationship between Arthur and Eames is never in doubt. Their on-screen relationship begins to spark social media response, which they learn to deal with, and they begin to think about what sort of future they want to have. Judging from the author’s comments throughout, this story had a live following as it was being posted, much like the imaginary reality show; the commenters affected the show’s challenges and outcome, which is so fun.
Fox on the Run by avocadomoon is a Bucky Barnes story that veers off before The Falcon and The Winter Soldier series; with the assistance of Pepper Potts and a civil rights lawyer, Bucky goes into hiding. Once there, he encounters former Black Widow Melina Vostokoff (who appears in the Black Widow movie) and Clint Barton, comics version rather than MCU version. I enjoyed this because it was a new angle on Bucky’s post-escape characterization, and did not involve him joining the Avengers. There are some possibly triggering references related to the Red Room and its abuse of young female trainees as well as the usual Winter Soldier angst.
Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub has been on my TBR for quite a while, along with a lot of other World War One reference books; some of them, I don’t read end to end, just dig into as needed. But this one was written for a general audience, and is not terribly long. To me, it’s meant to be festive but ultimately does not feel that way to me.
Please note that this post includes some unpleasant description of the realities of war.
The 1914 unofficial “Christmas Truce” is usually referred to as a beautiful thing, but to me, it’s always been both beautiful and terrible, highlighting the irrationality of war. For a day or two, up and down the Western Front, whole sections of the opposing armies agreed not to shoot at each other, sang back and forth from their trenches, and met in No Man’s Land to bury their dead, shake hands, chat, and exchange food, drink, tobacco, and uniform souvenirs such as badges and buttons. Some of them took down addresses, to write to each other after the war (I wondered if any of those men later ended up killing each other). There were makeshift football matches and bicycle races and concerts. Then the fighting and killing began again, and continued until November 11, 1918. There were no further informal truces of that extent.
What if we could always just stop? Stop fighting, stop killing, just go on strike against war? But we don’t. It’s horrible that we don’t.
In general, the Germans initiated the truce, ironic given that the Germans had initiated the war by invading neutral Belgium. The German troops at the front in December 1914 were mostly Saxon and Bavarian conscripts, not career soldiers, who set up lighted Christmas trees on their trench parapets. The English volunteers were skeptical at first but joined in. The book focuses on those two armies, but mentions French and Indian troops who also participated, and briefly describes those who were wholly against the truce, from all ranks and nationalities. The author researched materials including letters, newspapers, and regimental histories as well as a few fictionalized accounts written later. The research is Eurocentric, almost all either English or German sources.
It seems to have started this way: venturing out of their trenches under makeshift white flags, officers (for the most part) arranged an interval to bury their dead, some of whom had been lying in No Man’s Land for months at that point. Imagine that; imagine the state of those bodies after months lying in the knee-deep mud, decaying and gnawed by rats; imagine that those corpses were men you knew, your friends and comrades. I don’t think the later meetings, exchanges, and games would have been possible without first burying those dead men. I think that having the bodies out of sight, when they’d been constantly visible for months, must have imparted a sense of a clean slate to the general atmosphere; a way to fool yourself into a momentary peace.
Many of the first person accounts refer to a sense of wonder at the beauty of lights and music instead of artillery, and surprise that their enemies were just humans. I wish that we could always have that beauty and wonder.
The truces ended, as they had begun, in fits and starts up and down the line, sometimes on formal agreement, sometimes when new troops rotated from the rear to the front lines and resumed shooting. Some soldiers did attempt to resist returning to fighting, by shooting into the air (not safe! don’t try it!) or over the heads of their enemies, but their officers, or the officers above their officers, soon put a stop to such small rebellions.
The war continued. Millions died. Our conflicts now, over a century later, are mostly smaller in scale, but no less brutal and horrifying. Will war ever end, or is peace only ever temporary? It’s something for me to think about as the year turns, and I once again work on mustering up hope for humanity’s future.
Fiction: An Extravagant Death by Charles Finch visited Gilded Age Newport, Rhode Island, in 1878. After closing a politically sensitive case in his home country of England, Finch is pressured to visit the United States while the court case unfolds. Along the way he’s dragged into a murder case set among fabulously wealthy Americans who’ve built “cottages” (actually mansions) at the seaside; meanwhile, he muses upon his career and if he wants to continue with it. This novel is fourteenth in the Charles Lenox series; I had read one previous installment, much earlier in the continuity. I don’t think it’s necessary to be familiar with the series to enjoy the book; this one felt very different from the other one I read in both tone and plot.
Repercussions: Deceptive Disguises by L. A. Hall is seventeenth in the Clorinda Cathcart’s Circle series, and I need to start referring to family trees as there are now many more characters that there were in the original series! This is all to the good. I love this series because it always leans towards maximum felicity, plus there’s the soothing familiarity of characters I’ve spent many pleasant hours with.
brilliant (like a confession) by kathkin explores how it might go if Lois figures out she’s in love with Clark Kent, and Clark feels obligated to reveal his secret identity as Superman. This friends-to-lovers story gave me a new way of looking at how and why Clark is able to hide his secret identity in plain sight.
He Won’t Tell You That He Loves You by hellshandbasket is House/Wilson slash that takes place after House detoxes from Vicodin and is living with Wilson while he recovers. It’s a friends-to-lovers domesticity story. House has been denying his love for his best friend for years, and has to diagnose his own feelings. Meanwhile, Wilson’s being patient. Mostly. I enjoyed this one for the banter and the diagnosis angle, which fits in so well with the character.
The Constellation of Touch by what_alchemy is sweet Matt Murdock/Foggy Nelson slash set at Christmas, but the most excellent part is Matt’s answers to Foggy’s questions about his enhanced senses; a lot of great worldbuilding there.
Be As You’ve Always Been by gyzym is a delightful post-Good Omens tv story in which Aziraphale is slowly coming to understand his feelings about Crowley, their long history together, and his existence as an angel. There’s romance but also growing self-knowledge, and some Discworld crossover as well. It’s a lovely story.
The Edge Between the Sand and the Stars by rain_sleet_snow veers off canon after Star Wars: The Force Awakens, following Rey’s journey as she connects romantically with Finn and Poe as well as searching for her birth family, all while training to be a Jedi and fighting a war against the First Order and the Knights of Ren. I spent most of a week reading this and enjoying how thoughtfully her emotional journey was depicted.
Something Dumb to Do by poisonivory is a very sweet Matt Murdock/Foggy Nelson romance featuring fake marriage and friends-to-lovers tropes. My favorite part was the depiction of Foggy’s family.
I chose The Conductors by Nicole Glover for the “Lies” theme because it’s a murder mystery. However, it turned out to fit the theme in other ways as well: many of the suspects rewrote themselves and their lives to some extent after being freed from enslavement or moving up in the social order, meaning the investigators must constantly re-evaluate what they know and think they know. In addition, the protagonist Hetty Rhodes is a storyteller, and her thoughts about stories are relevant to the stories she and her husband Benjy are told about the murders.
“Where do you think my stories come from?”
“You heard them in the quarters and at your mother’s side as you shelled peas. You collected them from old aunties and uncles with more dreams than memories of African kingdoms. And most of all, you gathered them from the fancies of others wanting nothing more than to pass the time.”
“That’s one part,” Hetty murmured, “and it’s a very small part. A story is a living creature, and they need a personal touch to live on. You breathe in your woes, your loves, your troubles, and eventually they become something new. They aren’t the books you love so much. Stories change with the tellers.”
The Conductors is historical fantasy set soon after the American Civil War; the protagonists are formerly enslaved people who now work as amateur detectives in Philadelphia, among the Black community there. Magic is common, but in this world’s version of Jim Crow laws, people of color are forbidden from learning or using certain methods of using magic, for instance the use of wooden wands. Before Emancipation, enslaved people with magic were used by their enslavers and kept in check via the use of punishing collars that inhibited their abilities, not all that different from limitations imposed upon enslaved people and their talents in our world.
The details of the magic systems, wands versus nature and stars, were well thought out, both complex and thematically meaningful. The plot flowed very quickly. The murder mystery begins with a body found in an alley. Hetty and Benjy realize they have to search among their friends and acquaintances for the truth, and along the way they uncover more than they’d imagined. I won’t spoil the mystery here; I did guess the guilty party eventually, but not until close to the end. For me, guessing the murderer has nothing to do with how much I enjoy the journey!
The thing I wanted more of was a sense of place. I live in Philadelphia, and have some knowledge of the historical community depicted in the book, at least the real world version. I used to live in that area of the city and regularly read the historic markers. I had been hoping for a lot more sensory detail and specificity about locations and institutions; instead, the setting felt very bland, a background but not a character in itself, if that makes sense. For example, I am pretty sure the church and cemetery that figure into the plot were created for the book, which is fine, but felt very neutral; when real locations are mentioned, there isn’t a lot of detail. Obviously, the setting of this book is an alternate universe, so the Philadelphia with people using magic is not the same as the one I live in. But I would have liked to see the Black history of my city celebrated to a greater extent. This might have been a conscious choice to separate the story from real people and their lives, of course.
Incidentally, here’s the Historic Philadelphia Burial Places Map if you’re interested – there’s a lot of concern in Philadelphia about burial places that were utterly destroyed by developers, especially in the first half of the twentieth century.
Anyway! Wanting more of a book I enjoyed is always a good thing. I love the characters and the lowkey romance and the twisty plot. I’m looking forward to the sequel.
Fiction: Homicide and Halo-Halo by Mia P. Manansala is second in a cozy mystery series; I have not read the first book, but was easily able to follow the story. Protagonist Lila Macapagal has returned to the cozy small town of Shady Palms (Somewhere in the Vicinity of Chicago) to live near her family, who own and operate a Filipino restaurant; Lila and two friends, a lesbian couple, are in the process of opening a coffee shop that also sells plants and Filipino-inspired baked goods. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of food detail, which I enjoyed. The plot revolves around a local pageant for teen girls, and had some interesting detail on how this event was being updated to be more modern and rounded. Of course, all of this is happening around a murder investigation, and Lila’s lingering trauma from book one. I would have liked more of her gossipy aunties and their kitchen…they should meet. I will likely read more by this author.
Nonfiction: Influenza 1918: The Worst Pandemic in American History by Lynette Iezzoni is copyright 1999, which is its most salient point so far as my reading went. (I have a couple of much more recent books on this topic in the To Be Read pile.) So, Worst Pandemic Ever? Anyway! This book was written as a companion to “Influenza 1918,” a PBS tv documentary broadcast as part of The American Experience series. It focuses, as you might imagine, on the United States. There were some first person accounts, mostly from people who were children in 1918, and reference to Katherine Anne Porter’s story “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” Philadelphia had a chapter pretty much to itself, given the carnage there likely following on the several huge Liberty Loan parades/rallies in late September (before the danger of Flu was evident). The author does a good job of explaining why and how doctors and scientists had little recourse: viruses had not yet been discovered, and everyone thought influenza was caused by a bacterium, which meant all the varying attempts at vaccines were futile. Masking happened, but masks were made of surgical gauze, which cannot stop viruses. And of course the United States had recently entered World War One, and though thousands upon thousands of soldiers were dying in Army camps, jam-packed troopships to Europe did not stop because the need for soldiers was considered a higher priority.
What I noticed again and again were the parallels between reactions to the Influenza pandemic then and reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic now. People complained bitterly about mask mandates; some schools closed, others didn’t; people tried all types of folk remedies to try and prevent transmission and death; bodies piled up and there was a shortage of coffins. In the final chapter, the author summarizes how viral transmission was identified, advances in Flu vaccines, and how viruses shift and drift. “The question is not if another deadly shift will occur, but when,” (p. 214); she doesn’t mention coronaviruses, but does describe how interactions between humans and animals constantly contribute to new viral mutations, just as we’re are currently experiencing firsthand. So, it’s not the most up-to-date book on the topic, but I definitely feel it has lessons to impart.
As a final note, there was one incorrect fact which really annoyed me: “…Philadelphia City Hall, although capped with a statue of the city’s venerable architect, Benjamin Franklin…,” (page 133). No. The statue at the very top of City Hall is William Penn, please and thank you.
The Unspeakable Mind: Stories of Trauma and Healing from the Frontlines of PTSD Science by Shaili Jain was published in 2019, so it’s also pre-pandemic. It’s a well-organized overview with short chapters on the causes, types, and treatments for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, written by a specialist in that field. I found it very useful for its overview of recent research and new types of therapies. A particularly good section focused on the Partition of 1947 (in which members of the author’s family were killed) and the effects of its knock-on trauma that are still felt today.
Fanfiction: chaos, yet harmony by rain_sleet_snow is a massive alternate universe mixing three flavors of Star Wars: the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy; Star Wars: The Clone Wars; and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The novel, which occurs between the canonical events of Clone Wars and Rogue One, posits that Jyn Erso (Rogue One) meets Ahsoka Tano (The Clone Wars) long before the events of Rogue One, and they subsequently team up, find trust in each other, fall in love, uncover secrets, and forge new paths. Despite the length, and knowing practically nothing about the animated Clone Wars series, I was completely engaged from beginning to end as two wary, hardened characters very slowly grow closer. I am assuming that Jyn’s future in this alternate universe is far different than in canon.
this town is a song about you by synecdochic is another alternate universe, this time for Stargate: SG1. Though I’ve seen some episodes, I’m not hugely familiar with the details of this canon, but this story, featuring a disabled Cameron Mitchell and a teenaged clone of General Jack O’Neill (who has all the memories of his older counterpart), did not seem to require much canonical background. I assume Mitchell’s large family were all original characters. The story begins after a crash has left Mitchell invalided out of the Air Force; he ends up working with the clone, named J.D., creating military software and forging a romantic relationship. But their old lives are still lurking, and waiting to drag them back in to save the world. This story is first in a series.
Not in blue vases these
Nor white, cut flowers are seen
But in the August meadows
When the reaper falls clean –
And the shining and ridged rows
Of cut stalks show to the eye
As if some child’s hand there
Had ranged them, and passed by
To other rows, other swathes,
Eyebright, sorrel, the paths
Are shining, the heaps as well.
Violets in spring, are
In vases, a sweet heap
Better leave them by far
Under hedgerows or banks to keep.
Daffodills, wallflowers, Daisies
Of Michaelmas Time let still
Also, no gathering-crazes
Should spoil the sweet Spring-time’s will
Daisies best left alone,
Chrysanthemums of chill
Evenings of Autumn, gone
Soon to cold Winters will.
At the full garden-folk
Leave in their beds, but if
Under the steely yoke
They must be gathered, With
Cruelty of no need.
Then lay them in wide pans,
Or open jars; agreed
Best pottery that is man’s,
Sweetest of flowers bring in
To the four walls, the china-sets
And table clean as a pin.
By books and pictures lay
These wild things cruelly tamed
Taken from the blowing day
Exiled, uprooted, hurt, lamed.
That the hedgerows miss and the copse –
O if flowers must be cut
To spoil an earth-plot’s hopes.
Take them with eyes shut.
Or give a small coin or two
To Children who may not care
So much as grown-ups should do –
Cut flowers in vases rare –
Pottery rounded with these
(Best of all) or with no care
Ranged in may-hap degrees
In wide pot or any jar –
Gather them, pluck not, please.